Christmas Birding in Eastern China - 2017
After talking about it for the last 4 years,Oscar & I finally got round to visiting one of the great wetlands on Earthover Christmas – Poyang Lake in eastern China – and we were not to bedisappointed.....
With our wives in tow, this was never truly afull-on birding trip, but we nevertheless racked up an awesome list of qualitybirds, alongside some truly outrageous numbers of wintering wetland birds. Wewere fortunate to come across local Chinese birder, Steven An, who runs ChinaDreams Tour (http://www.chinadreamstour.com/) who helped organise some of the ground arrangements and we were evenmore fortunate when he decided to accompany us on our 10 day trip.
Having arrived in Shanghai a few hours ahead ofLouise & me, Oscar & Gilly had braved the rain for a few hours birdingin Century Park with Steven, picking up several good birds that weren’t readilyseen elsewhere, including Azure-winged Magpie and Pale &Grey-backed Thrushes. We spent the night in Hangzhou, a 2 hour drive south of Shanghai.
Our first few days were more touristy than birdy;a grey, damp day in Hangzhou yielded a few birds around Longjingcun and WestLake, including Vinous-throated& Grey-headed Parrotbills, Chinese Grosbeak & Yellow-belliedTit. We then travelled west towards the Yellow Mountains, visiting the oldtown of Hongcun en route. The mountains themselves were simply stunning.Accessed by cable car from Huangshan, the range is a seemingly never-endingseries of dramatic peaks linked by stone footpaths (read endless steps...) andwooden boardwalks (more endless steps.....) that cling to the vertiginous rockfaces. In cloudless blue skies, the views were breath-taking – or was it theeffort of walking up and down those endless steps...?
Five days into the trip, things got serious.A two night stay at Wuyuan netted us absolute monsters in the form of several Pied Falconets ata stake-out, up to 15 Scaly-sidedMergansers on the river along with Long-billed Plover, Crested Kingfisher, Mandarin Duck, Little& White-crowned Forktails, Grey-sided ScimitarBabbler and Yellow-browed, Little & Black-facedBuntings.
Three days at Emeifeng, a mountain close to thequaint town of Taining, were tough going, with birds hard to come by, but wemanaged to rack up another great list of birds. Forktails, both White-crowned & Spotted were unbelievably regular and a Slaty-backed was alsofound nearby. The surrounding fields were good for buntings, with over 50 Little Buntings foundin one stubble field. On the mountain, we got great views of a male Cabot’s Tragopan thatsat virtually motionless for what must have been almost half an hour (we walkedaway before it did!), Silver Pheasant was surprisingly difficult, with amale and 3 females found late on our first afternoon the only encounter formost of us. Chinese BambooPartridges werefairly common, unlike Elliot’s Pheasant – a male found in a gully earlymorning giving reasonable views despite the low light.
Bird flocks on the mountain were few & farbetween, but a wave containing 50 of both Great Barbets & GreyTreepies, 2 Lesser Yellownapes (very scarce in China) & a Bay Woodpecker wasan unbelievable sight.
Finally, on Christmas Day, we got to the mainevent. The raison d’être. Theicing on the Christmas cake. Poyang Lake.
It’s vast. After the summer rains, it swells to anarea of over 3000 sq km with a shoreline of approx 1200km, gradually recedingto leave a complex series of satellite lakes as the water drains into theYangtze. In winter, it hosts incredible numbers of birds and what we saw mustonly be a fraction. We saw over 100 species during our 3 days around the lake,but the quality and quantity of birds was mind-blowing. Four crane species -700 Siberian Cranes, over 100 Common Cranes and lesser numbers of both Hooded & White-naped, 800 Oriental Storks, andthousands of geese – Tundra & TaigaBean Goose, Greater White-fronted, Greylag & Swan Goose. Just as unbelievable were the massive flocks ofscarce UAE species – Avocets and Spotted Redshanks were the commonest waders by far,often in flocks of 1000 or more. Even more amazing was the sight of 8,000 Eurasian Spoonbills onone lake we visited.
As if things couldn’t have been more exciting,we’d heard that a single Baer’s Pochard, one of the world’s rarest andcritically endangered ducks (world population estimated at 150-700individuals), had been seen in the area the previous week. Yeah, right; asingle duck amongst gazillions of waterfowl. Dream on... Yet, late on oursecond day, with less than 30 minutes of daylight remaining Oscar picked out agroup of 3, yes 3(!), likely candidates way over the back of one of thesatellite lakes. Despite the distance, the distinctive flank markings and whitevent patches were apparent and, having run around the lake for a closer look infading light, other features such as the chestnut breast and head shape becamediscernible. These were definitely not Tufties, they were indeed Baer’s!!! Much high-fiving and swearing ensued, followedby huge Cheshire Cat-like smirks for the rest of the evening, if not the restof the trip.
All too often, things that you dream about foryears turn out to be a disappointment. Poyang Lake isn’t one of them. It is, inso many ways, immense.